For the first time, in my opinion, a California grower is producing extra virgin olive oil that is comparable in price, quality and availability to the extra virgin oils produced in Greece, Spain and Italy.
Less than ten years ago California Olive Ranch started planting high density olive trees that look and act like grapevines. These cloned olive trees can be espaliered on wires, and mechanically pruned and harvested. Forget the romantic vision of groves of majestic hundred year old olive trees towering twenty feet high that must be harvested by hand. In the new world of olive oil production, olive trees look like bushes, are planted close together in narrow rows and are less than six feet high.
These bushy trees were developed in Catalonia, Spain, fifteen years ago, where an agricultural conglomerate was able to clone arbequina, arbosana and koroneiki varieties that would grow in high density formation and bountifully produce. Financed with big time investment from a group that includes Spanish engineers, California Olive Ranch has thus far planted 13,000 acres of these olives north of Sacramento around Artois, and it now produces high quality, easily available, extra virgin olive oil of traceable origin.
I visited two of their olive ranches and their production facility in November, during the 2012 harvest. Towering tractors with long arms straddled a row of low bushy trees, shaking them so that their bright green fruit fell onto a conveyor belt that dumped them into a hopper pulled slowly one row away. The olives remained amazingly unbruised. (A fellow journalist told me that she witnessed raspberries harvested the same way, and that even these most delicate of fruits survived unscathed.)
The olives were immediately trucked to a modern, high tech facility in Corning where they were washed, hammer pressed and centrifuged to separate the oil from the pits and skins. Each truckload of fruit was labeled as it arrived at the mill and tracked throughout pressing and storage. Because the whole process takes less than a day–picking, transport, pressing– there is no time for spoilage or oxidation. The oil, stored in air tight tanks and kept cool, is only bottled once it is ordered.
Anyone who has been hit with the almost tactile scent of newly pressed oil remembers it. And we were immersed in this luscious olive perfume on the day we visited the California Olive Ranch pressing facility. I’d say that balance and moderate fruitiness characterize their oil. This is oil you can use everyday–in cooking, in vinaigrettes, as a drizzle, though some of the more expressive, lively, bitter/fruity and expensive, traditionally grown and harvested oils, would be more exciting as a condiment. Still, these California Olive Ranch high density trees, cultivated right here, produce a lovable, practical and affordable oil for the everyday kitchen. As we have all learned, extra virgin olive oil is one of the healthiest fats you can eat. It actually lowers cholesterol, and as part of a vegetable rich Mediterranean-style diet, easily followed here San Francisco, olive oil promotes long life–. especially with a regular exercise.
The price of these nice oils also contributes to a sense of well being. My favorite, California Olive Ranch Arbequina, the freshest and fruitiest of the lot, is about $14 a half liter and is available at Lucky, Safeway, Whole Foods and many other stores. It is available at Trader Joe’s, under TJ’s own label, at a slightly lower price.